New Blog!

I wasn’t sure what to do about this blog now that culinary school has officially concluded.

So I made this:

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Divine Intervention: Private Lessons in Pastry

In my last post I had intentionally tried to obscure the fact that I honestly wasn’t enjoying my internship very much. Well, I wasn’t. It had nothing to do with the people, the food, or even the nature of the work itself…mostly just the pace. I felt frantic for too many hours out of an 11 or 12 hour day, and was starting to have anxiety attacks before every shift.

This is what an internship is all about though, right? A learning experience? Well, I learned definitively that I don’t want to work in a restaurant kitchen. At least not one of this size and scope. I just ain’t that tough, kids.

In terms of getting through my relatively short internship requirement, though, I was committed. And, in the spirit of having a rounded experience, I asked the pastry chef if I could do a coupe of shifts with her to finish out.

This is where the divine intervention part comes in. Last week as I was counting down my remaining shifts in the savory kitchen (there were to be 8) I went in for what had been my regularly scheduled shift to find…I wasn’t on the schedule for that day. Nor for that week, even. Neither for the one following. God bless new interns!

And so, wanting to make sure I kept whittling away at my required internship hours and get that all sorted out as quickly as possible….I fled. Did I mention the anxiety part? Yeah, as far as I was concerned, if nobody was expecting me to be there then I didn’t need to be there, so I got out before anyone could stop me and make me put on ill-fitting pants and pry living bivalves out of their homes.

But I did still have about a third of my hours to fulfill. So with a few phone calls I got officially moved over to the pastry department for my last shifts. (My not being on the schedule turned out to be pure administrative oversight, i.e. divine intervention.)

Pastry is, by comparison, (please forgive this…) SWEET! Possibly it’s just the difference between being actively in service and being in prep/production, but I have no trouble spending 11 hours hanging out with the pastry chef, listening to Madonna, and making toffee. (Or granola, or concord grape sorbet, or buttermilk panna cotta, etc.) It’s not that it’s easier, nor that the cleanup is less exhausting. Just that I can work at a pace that doesn’t cause my adrenaline to max out.

Crossing over happens here and there, but not too often, apparently, given the number of people who’ve stopped by pastry to ask whether I was coming back to savory or what.

Answer? Nope! Pass me the cookies.

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A Day in the Life of a Restaurant Intern

First, I get to work 45 minutes to an hour before my scheduled shift because I’ve learned this is how much time it takes for me to complete everything I need to without feeling frantic. Reason #1 restaurant kitchens are mostly dominated by men: the uniform pants available seem to be missing a place to put your hips. I have to go up about 2 pants sizes* in order to get the suckers over my hips, and then fold down the gaping waistband.

I have about 2 hours to complete the following:
-Slice lemonsvfor oyster garnish. (Small cuts on one’s hands make this slightly painful.)
-Mince shallots and chives for mignonette sauce into supremely delicate little bits with clean slices that don’t make the veggies bleed. The couple of shallots I’m mincing don’t bother me so much, but if the prep cooks working near me happen to be prepping a bucket of shallots (this has happened the past two days) I am also accomplishing my OCD mince through a weepy-eyed haze.
-Assemble ingredients for little cheese puffs, including about a pound of shredded parmesean and fontina cheese.
-Quennelle and bread seafood croquettes. Quennelling is a process of using two spoons to work the mixture into little footballs. I find this activity rather satisfying, even if it mysteriously causes the tip of my left middle finger to go numb for the rest of the night.

Then for the next hour I have to move everything from the downstairs prep area to the upstairs service kitchen, while simultaneously cooking the dough for the cheese puffs. If I’ve planned well it should only take 10-12 trips to get all of the above upstairs, plus about 100 oysters, crushed ice for the oysters, 3 different kinds of bread, and miscellaneous supplies. (*I used to have to wear pants that were 3 sizes above normal.)

Once the cheese puff dough is completed, it gets put into pastry bags and chilled. If I’m on top of stuff, I’ll have about 20 minutes before family meal to get my station set up: making sure I have all the necessary service pieces: 4 different sized bowls for oysters; little ramekins for cocktail sauce, lemons, and mignonette sauce; oyster knives. Perhaps I will also use this time to have a heart to heart talk with the oysters so that they will open up to me.

Then on to family meal. I am a sucker for free food of any variety, but I must say this family meal is especially good. The 8 or so cooks who are working the stations for dinner are each responsible for a dish. Sometimes they coordinate and get a whole themed meal out of it (Moroccan once this week) and sometimes it’s just random. Last night, for instance, there were meatballs with marinara sauce, (8 oz meatballs, mind you, since the guy making them couldn’t find a smaller scoop,) roasted potatoes, some sort of rice pilaf, mussels with vegetables and cream sauce, roasted broccoli with anchovy butter, and a green salad. If I haven’t been feeling too frantic up to this point, I may actually have an appetite. If not, I’m scarfing down what I can anyway, since this will be my only opportunity to eat for the next 8 hours. (*By next week, I expect to only have to go up 1 pants size.)

After family meal we move into service. During service I am responsible for the following things once they are “fired.” (That’s restaurant speak for “cook this now.”):
-Toasting and slicing three different types of bread (admires blister on right index finger where heel of knife sits)
-Shucking oysters as ordered. (Admires three puncture wounds on base of left thumb where oyster knife slipped and small cuts on right middle finger from the pointy parts of the shells.) Mind you, before the one day I had shucked oysters in culinary school, I had experience with this roughly never.
-Warming and plating bacon cheddar biscuits. (Pastry department makes and supplies these.)
-Deep frying corn fritters (batter prepared by Garde Manger**) and seafood croquettes. (I have no hot oil burns to speak of as of yet. <knock wood>) I have a instant read digital thermometer for making sure my oil is hovering around 325 degrees. When it’s not in the oil I am often shocked to notice that the ambient kitchen temperature is registering around 99 degrees. I am drinking buckets of water but never having to use the bathroom.

**Garde Manger refers to the station in a kitchen responsible for salads or other cold items.

If I’m lucky, the pace of this is constant, but not crazy. Occasionally I have a heart spasm when I hear things like “Fire 24 chilled oysters,” but then usually someone else will jump over and help me. If the oysters are cooperative I can shuck about 3 a minute. 6 or 12 is a normal order.

And in addition to what gets fired, I need to find time in the evening to pipe the cheese puff dough into little rounds that get frozen and baked for the following day’s service. Reason number #1009 that I perhaps should have more strongly considered pastry is that I’m apparently really good at this. The Garde Manger cooks who use the puffs to fill with goat cheese for an amuse bouche have declared that mine are the most successful of anyone who works that station. (The other 1008 reasons that perhaps I should have gone into pastry involve my love of sweets and the fact that several of the pastry cooks are always downstairs in the prep kitchen which is not 99 degrees rocking out to something like Guns N Roses while going about their business.) Occasionally I’ll get asked to do little side projects for the line cooks like quartering brussels sprouts and dicing some bread into cubes for little croutons. For VIP guests a bonus course might be improvised, and that’s when these kinds of things come up.

When service starts winding down, after you’ve been on your feet for 10 hours (minus 10 minutes of family meal sitting) is when the really hard work begins. Cleaning up. And this involves taking everything out of every cabinet and every drawer, and cleaning in, around, and under every surface you can see, plus taking back down everything you initially brought up. Basically this feels like you just ran a half marathon and so you thought afterward you should run a marathon for a little cool down. The clogs you wear that protect your toes on the outside from things like falling knives etc., feel like they are breaking your little toes from the inside. Where the rest of the staff finds the energy to push through this part at a rapid clip is beyond me, since by the end of the night I can barely walk.

Is it all worth it? Truthfully, the jury is still out for me. I do get a kick out of the fact that people are paying big money to consume things that I made. And at the end of the night all the cooks hang out in the kitchen for a minute and have a beer together, which is cool. And sometimes the pastry department brings leftovers, which is supremely cool.

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Culinary School Denouement: What I have (and have not) learned

I suppose I will soon be changing the title of this blog to Dispatches Post-Culinary School. Pictures of my graduation buffet forthcoming…

Meanwhile, I thought I’d take a moment to reflect on some of the things I’ve really absorbed during the past 6 months…

1. Good kitchen habits like washing every dish when you’re done using it and keeping your work space clean.
2. Efficiency in executing a recipe to use as few dishes as is practical, and making as few trips to the fridge/dish sink as possible by multi-tasking and staying grounded in the big picture of what you’re trying to accomplish.
3. I can guesstimate a measurement by weight within 10% most of the time.
4. Generally I can fix something that has gone wrong – with the notable exception of over-cooking, for which science has not yet determined a solution.
5. I can fillet the heck out of a whole fish. Sorry, Nemo.
6. Things that end with the sound “ay” – saute, flambe, make a cornet, cut a carrot in tournee, etc.
7. Salt. Use it. Love it. Salt the thing that you’re cooking and sometimes even the thing that you’re cooking it in. (If you’re nervous about blood pressure go get checked to see if you are in the 10 measly percent of the population whose blood pressure is affected by salt. If not – season it up!)
8. Puff Pastry – from scratch! (I long ago promised an (ex) co-worker of mine that I would figure out how to make vegan croissants and these are not far behind.)
9. Plating and garnish – these to me are honestly what separates really good home cooking from restaurant quality.
10. Sauce. It’s what makes stuff awesome.

And a few things that still haven’t quite sunk in:

1. 9 times out of 10 I will turn on the wrong burner on the first try.
2. Pepper. 5 different instructors had 5 different opinions about pepper, so white versus black pepper, when and how much of each to use remains a mystery. For now I’m kind of avoiding it altogether.
3. Somehow I got more squeamish with lobsters the more we used them. Maybe the first batch that I was so intent upon killing were lame, and every lobster since has seemed pretty lively just before execution.
4. I’m still OCD enough that I don’t like having my hands dirty. Fortunately, nobody faults you in a restaurant kitchen for wearing gloves.
5. How to get all my hair up in the stupid little hat.

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My Bologna Has a First Name…

(Yes, that’s two blog posts for the price of one.)

Repeat after me:


That’s “Charcuterie.” (Accent on the second syllable.) So now whenever you see that on a menu, you will know how to say it. And then you will understand that it refers to forcemeats and/or cured meats – things like sausages, pates, and bacon.

I have vaguely fond memories of bologna and butter sandwiches as a kid. Somewhere around 6th grade they got replaced by peanut butter and marshmallow fluff, though. Which may explain why my marathon running/professional dance careers never took off. If you think about bologna not as some weird-ass, packaged crap, and more of in the  “mortadella” realm (that’s its fancy name), you may even want to eat some as an adult. Really, bologna and hotdogs and the like totally have a respectable culinary history, born in peasant cuisines where you had to use every part of the animal you had. Sausages like Italian Sausage are simply ground meat, fat, and spices, where Bologna has the same ingredients, just emulsified/pulverized before stuffing.


And here’s what makes Bologna taste like Bologna – nutmeg, caraway, onion powder, white pepper. Fascinating, no?

And finally, a series of photographs for you to make all of the sausage jokes you want:

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What Can Brown Do For You?

Mostly I just really wanted to use that for a title. Monday and Tuesday of this week we focused on hors d’oeuvres (I will be looking up how to spell that for the rest of my life) and Monday’s lesson in particular had an awful lot  of small fried items:

Tuesday, however, got a bit less mono-chromatic. All aboard the Crab Salad Boats to Island of Salmon Parfaits! Who’s with me!? (What, you’re not tempted by those descriptions?)


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Play by Play

I know, I know. I haven’t been posting as often as I could. I could give a bunch of excuses about my work schedule, sleep schedule, and the bloggeritis I am experiencing given the mere 2 weeks I have left of school. But you’re all out there waiting to be fed, and as a cook*, I should be feeding you.

*Once I complete this program, I will not consider myself a chef. Chef means a lot more than just 6 months of culinary school, though I am comfortable with the term “cook.”

Anyway. Here’s what happened last week after Monday:

We were off on Tuesday. Riveting.

Wednesday we had “market basket” lesson 2, meaning another day of free reign. This time a protein was not pre-assigned (as had been the case with Monday’s scallops), and we had several to choose from. (Which Chef Chris had stockpiled, wrapped in foil, and all labeled “chicken bones,” since interesting proteins are the kinds of things people are likely to swipe.) I prepared a coriander dusted duck breast with a gingered rice, pickled julienned vegetables, and a red coconut curry sauce. Then my camera died. But Brian Duncan managed to send me this picture from his phone:

Thursday we had our final cooking test. This was the culmination of everything – time and space management, demonstration of consistent cooking ability, knife skills, and cleanliness. We each had to cut mirepoix: onions, carrots, celery in small dice (1/4″ squares); then fabricate a whole chicken and from that whole chicken prepare: grilled paillard (boneless, skinless breast pounded flat), sauteed chicken breast with pan sauce, and a braise with the rest of the chicken parts and also utilizing the mirepoix we’d cut. Also we had to present blanched broccoli, asparagus, and green beans, and prepare a root vegetable puree. (I got turnips.)  I did well. I did everything in time and was pleased with all of my outcomes.

Then Friday we had a non-cooking lecture about the business and operation/management of restaurants, which got me thinking/scheming about all of the ways I’d like to work for myself in the future. Stay tuned.

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Last October, having made the decision to attend culinary school, I sat in on a class who was just about to finish their program. They were on a “market basket” lesson where each was given a duck breast and charged to create a full plated meal around it. I then sat with Chef Chris at the end of the class period and sampled 13 different takes on duck breast, being mostly impressed with what people had come up with. Some components I still remember – one student’s butternut squash gnocchi, another’s crispy polenta square with honey.

Today was that lesson for us. Back during the practical for module 3 I described how several of my fellow classmates went out of bounds when it seemed as though we were given a bit of free reign when it came to preparing the components on that exam. Today, however, there were no bounds, other than to take 3 scallops, cook them golden brown, and plate them with starch, vegetable, and sauce components.

I did a little bit of homework on it this weekend, at least looking up some sauce ideas. For some reason that to me was the most puzzling component, since scallops are so mild in flavor. Anyway, I’m pleased with what I came up with, which was sautéed scallops with roasted zucchini, carrot-thyme ravioli, and a white-wine butter sauce.

Wednesday we get to do this again, only this time with mystery proteins, and also with the additional challenge to consider plating in a more composed way, other than keeping all the components separate.

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The Infamous Salmon Ice Cream Cone

Bear with me.

A few years ago, my friend (and former blogger-in-crime) Eva and I decided to save our money* to go to per se, largely considered the best, and factually the most expensive, restaurant in New York.


We did so after having read a memoir by Phoebe Damrosch, who had been one of the original servers at per se when it first opened.

In an early chapter she describes trying to recreate Thomas Keller’s (chef behind per se) Salmon Cornets from his French Laundry cookbook. FL is Keller’s restaurant in Napa Valley, largely considered the best restaurant in the country. All guests in the restaurant are presented with one of these Salmon Cornets as a first bite – a petite ice-cream cone looking thing, where a mound of salmon tartare takes the place of the ice cream, presented in a plastic ice-cream cone holder.

Damrosch describes her haphazard attempt at creating these in her tiny apartment kitchen with a motley assortment of scrapped-together tools to try to shape the cones, most of which broke in the process. As a server at per se, she later describes getting to present these cones to guests, many of whom recognize them for what they are – an edible prank. Who expects to go to a four-star  restaurant and be initially handed something that looks like it could have come from Baskin Robbins? Some, not really getting the joke, actually attempt to consume the 2-bite cone with a fork and knife.

About a month ago, someone from the class across the hall brought us a tray of tiny ice cream cones. I knew immediately what they were and who they were attributable to.

So, as we were coming upon the Thomas Keller lesson in this week’s curriculum, I had the following conversation with the notorious Brian Duncan, table-partner extraordinaire, who would be the team leader for that lesson and therefore make recipe assignments:

PV: “So, I’d really like to do the salmon cornets tomorrow. No pressure. But I really, really want to. But no pressure. But, you know, pick me.”

BD: “I hate salmon.”

So Friday morning I had 3 hours to finely mince about 6 ounces of salmon, a couple of teaspoons each of shallots, red onions, and chives, and make the little ice cream cones.

The little cones are a bitch.

PV: (midway through cone output) “Remember when I said I really, really wanted to do this yesterday? Yeah.”

But anyway. 3 hours later I had exactly 15 cooperative 2″ cones, just enough to fill the little ice cream tray for presentation. And they were deemed by the chef to be picture perfect.

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The Truth About Pastry and Savory

My particular apologies to Maureen, who was looking forward to many more pastry posts than I managed to pull off. I do have some plating photos to share when I have more tim in front of the computer.

If I may grossly oversimplify some of the differences between working in pastry versus working in savory cuisine, here are a few highlights:
-More waiting in pastry. Payoff may be more “Wow!”-inducing, but pastry is not for those who seek quicker gratification. In that respect, I’m happy to have gone back to savory cooking this morning, where we were back to churning out numerous dishes during our 4 hour class, and not just a gigungous pile of puff dough, for example.
-Pastry leftovers, however, have way better staying power, and are potentially way more useful to have on hand. As of the end of our pastry module, I had in my freezer: 2 gallon bags full of cream puff shells, half cheese and half plain, one lemon-scented layer cake, a full semolina round loaf, 16 brioche hamburger buns, and several tarts worth of uncooked pastry dough. Things like these may come in handy if, for example, you get a last minute phone call for an invite to a Bastille Day Party. Defrost a few cream puffs, fill with chocolate mousse and glaze with hot fudge on hand and suddenly a dozen strangers will think you a genius.

But it was in fact back to savory cooking today. This is our LAST UNIT, which is nuts. (Nuts as in crazy, not as in it being a unit about nuts.) This week we do profiles of contemporary master chefs, next week we get to do some “market basket” cooking (think “Chopped”), and following that we do some charcuterie (sausage making) and hors d’ouervres, and then voila. Done.

It’s a lot of food for thought as I think about not being here every morning, and being somewhere else even earlier every morning: (Brian Duncan! You coming with me or what?)

Please enjoy the following afternoon snack care of Mario Batali:

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